Workers’ rights are relevant more than ever

MEP Alex Agius Saliba, who is running again as a PL candidate for the European elections, identifies workers’ rights as the key issue he shall continue prioritising if re-elected.

As we commemorate the 66th anniversary of the general strike of 1958 it is opportune to put the actions of those gallant workers into the context of the never ending struggle to improve workers’ rights.

Back then, Maltese workers suffered grievous injustices at the hands of the British colonial Government. Their fight, spearheaded by Perit Duminku Mintoff, was to obtain equal rights with British workers. Mintoff’s chosen path was to attempt integration with Great Britain to achieve these rights through a political level playing field. The talks collapsed as the British Government failed to improve the social and working rights of the Maltese. The General Workers’ Union (GWU) then called a general strike to make it clear that Maltese workers will achieve their rights, no matter what. Workers remained steadfast behind the Union despite the hostility of the Colonial Government, including the arrest of numerous workers. This memorable day, which was unfortunately blemished with unjustified violence by a minority of workers, opened the path towards Malta’s independence, with Mintoff famously saying “pay up or go home.”

This path was eventually also adopted by Mintoff’s political opponents and Malta achieved its independence under a PN Government. It was however Mintoff who used this newfound freedom to improve the plight of the working class. Reforms in the 1970s saw the introduction of a pension amounting to two thirds of the salary. A special pension for the disabled, the children’s allowance and an annual bonus were introduced in just a few years. Thousands of dwellings were built for workers and their families. Legislation on industrial relations improved workers’ rights and pregnant women were granted maternity leave.

Workers’ rights were once again endangered in the 1990s as high inflation eroded some of the gains in income which had been achieved. This led the GWU to once again order strikes in various entities, which were successful and improved the workers’ economic conditions. The strikes also achieved an enhanced political initiative. A supplementary allowance was introduced for workers with low income whilst new legislation on industrial relations adopted a few years later included the first family friendly measures.

Due to increasing globalisation, work related legislation is nowadays often set at a European and international level to ensure a level playing field between countries. European institutions have done sterling work in this field but are prone to inertia due to their mammoth size. During the last few years I noted that employers were abusing recent improvements in communications technology to expect their employees to continue working after office hours. Employers’ intransigence led to increased stress and poorer health for workers, yet the European institutions’ inertia meant that employment legislation was not quickly adjusted to cater for this new abuse. I embarked on a personal initiative to address this anomaly through new legislation termed the ‘Right to Disconnect’. Following various struggles, not least opposition from employers, this proposal was approved by the European Parliament. Following continuous pressure, including from my end, the European Commission has now embarked on the process to adopt the proposal into legislation.

During the next legislature I shall continue prioritising workers’ rights in my work at the European Parliament. I will give even greater priority to areas where European institutions may improve the quality of life of Maltese workers, such as by ensuring that we pay fair prices for food staples. Together we shall continue along the path charted in the general strike of 1958.

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